"I've always had international clients, but the number of patients we see from international sources increases every year," explained Dr. Brian Kaplan, M.D., from Fertility Centers of Illinois (FCI).
Kaplan has been working in the field of assisted reproductive technology for more than 20 years as a physician and has seen the field progress tremendously. Not only has the technology grown, but Kaplan said he has seen significant growth in the number of same-sex international couples turning to in vitro fertilization (IVF) to start their family.
Kaplan said that while other countries certainly have the means to do IVF procedures many of them have legislation in place that prohibits or severely restricts individuals and couples from taking advantage of it as an option. One of the most restrictive, are laws that state that a surrogate or an egg donor cannot be monetarily compensated.
"In many European countries you cannot pay an egg donor," said Kaplan. "That's difficult, because not many women would do that. In this country we have egg donor agencies who recruit egg donors for our patients and the donor gets paid to do this, as does the surrogate."
To reach out to international patients FCI actively markets IVF as do the egg donor and surrogate recruiting agencies. Kaplan says that between the marketing efforts of organizations and word-of-mouth from couples who have had successful experiences many would-be parents do find out about the option of coming to cities in the United States for an egg donor and a surrogate.
FCI is the second largest practice in the United States, serving approximately 3,000 cases per year, and Illinois has some of the most helpful legislation for those interested in utilizing IVF procedures. Friendly laws and a well-established practice group and affiliated lab, aParent IVF, make Chicago a leading option for international couples as well as national couples seeking to start a family.
Windy City Times spoke through email with three same-sex male couples from Spain who all turned to FCI and aParent IVF to build their families through surrogacy.
Ricardo and Ivan's story
Ricardo, 36, and Ivan, 34, have been together since December 1998 and say that from the beginning of their relationship they were both open about their desire to eventually marry and start a family.
"We love children and we have always enjoyed playing with our nieces and some friends' children," said Ricardo.
In 2006, Ricardo, who has his doctorate in chemistry and works at a research center, and Ivan, who has a master's degree and works in interior design, married in Spain and soon after began discussing how they would build their family. They were both excited about the prospect of parenthood, but also a bit daunted by obstacles they had to face as a same-sex couple.
"We met another family from our city that created their family through surrogacy and they explained everything," said Ricardo. "We then decided to start our surrogacy journey.
"We contacted different agencies in the U.S., based in Illinois, Wisconsin and California. In addition, we were in contact with different international couples that had a baby through surrogacy with different agencies. In the end, we decided to work with Family Source Consultants from Illinois because among all the agencies we met this was a very close, human and nice relationship."
It took two months for the agency to match them with an egg donor and a surrogate. With their surrogate selected, they began working with FCI and Dr. Kaplan.
Ricardo and Ivan met their surrogate in 2008, and said that they slowly built a strong relationship with her. It took time because of limited communication options, having to rely on email and phone calls. But soon enough they felt a strong connection. Ricardo shared, "We are very proud of having met her because she is an amazing, strong and responsible woman."
In 2009, one week prior to the birth of their son, they flew to Chicago for the delivery. "She allowed us to enter the delivery room and we were so excited in helping during the delivery and supporting her and her husband. It was amazing, that moment when we saw our baby for the first time after the last push. We don't have words to explain, you have to feel it … no words.
"I was able to cut the umbilical cord and take him for a while. We both started crying. I embraced my husband, saying 'we got it.'"
Ten days after their son was born the couple met with their Chicago attorneys, who they had worked with throughout the entire process, and signed the documents necessary to designate them both as their child's parents.
Ricardo and Ivan's son is now 2 years old. The couple has attempted to have a second baby, using the same surrogate, but thus far have not been successful.
"Last year, FCI transferred frozen embryos to our surrogate and she got pregnant, unfortunately she had a miscarriage. It was very hard because we were very excited, but we do hope we will be able to try again soon."
To other couples considering surrogacy, Ricardo shares that it is important to be committed as a couple because the effort is great. He also says that financially it is a challenge. Ricardo and Ivan took out a loan to cover all the expenses of the procedure.
"We are a normal family and we are going to pay the loan for many years, but it is worth it. It is the best."
Javier and Antonio
Javier, 35, remembers the day that he and his husband Antonio, 39, decided to start their family. "It was a winter day. While we were having dinner, I listened to my neighbor's baby laughing and his parents were laughing with him. In that moment I told Antonio 'I wish to have children.' Antonio looked at me and said, 'from my point of view that is perfect. Let's go ahead.'"
Javier, an emergency physician, and Antonio, then a store manager, were married in 2009, after many years of living together. After making the decision to have a child they first considered adoption, but said that for a married international couple adoption is nearly impossible as well as being a very long process. Instead, they happened to find out about another same-sex male couple that had just had a baby through surrogacy using an organization in Chicago. Since surrogacy wasn't possible in Spain, they hadn't thought of it as an option.
"Finally we didn't have any obstacles based on our sexuality," said Javier. "We contacted Family Source Consultants, and from our first time they knew we were a same-sex couple. They treated us in the same way as if we were a heterosexual couple."
Javier said that the process seemed to take forever, especially once they had been matched with a surrogate. He said what made it bearable was the regular communication.
"It seemed as if months were years, but thanks to our surrogate, the waiting was better than expected. She wrote us an email every Sunday, telling us how the week passed, changes in her body, doctor appointments."
He added that Family Source Consultants were also readily available to answer any questions or concerns that came up.
"They helped us with everything we needed: looking for a hotel, borrowing a stroller and, of course, they paid attention to all our process during the nine months."
Javier and Antonio welcomed their baby daughter, Victoria, in 2010 at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital. Javier's mother was also present for her granddaughter's birth. They said that the hospital staff was very supportive and made them all feel very special.
"When Victoria was born we started to cry and we could not stop. We were so nervous and excited that we could not take a lot of pictures. I cut the umbilical cord. It was incredible.
"Still, we can't believe how lucky we are. We feel really happy with our new life, and are looking forward to trying another cycle for a sibling for Victoria."
Javier and Antonio grew up with three siblings apiece and both knew that later in their lives they would want to have a big family. "We have always imagined having a house full of children. Life has no sense for us without them."
The couple has remained close with their surrogate. "When we arrived in Chicago, some days before the delivery, we met her and her family to have dinner. Once our daughter was born we met them to have lunch twice, before leaving the states. Still, we keep in contact with them. We have invited them to visit us in Spain. She is a very important person in our lives so we would like to keep contact forever."
Javier encourages other couples to consider surrogacy if they wish to start a family. "Don't be afraid. The first time surrogacy can seem long and a hard process, but in Spain all the people who have had children through surrogacy say the same 'we do not know anybody who has not had success in the end.'"
S. and A.
S., 33, and A., 43, are currently awaiting the birth of twins after experiencing two unsuccessful IVF cycles. They say that they are excited and nervous, and that they prefer to be cautious until they have their babies with them.
"We were not sure if we would ever be gifted with a baby and all of a sudden we are expecting two," said S. "We experienced a mix of joy and gratitude that is hard to explain. Our surrogate told us the other day that the babies have just started to make some movements and we felt ourselves closer to them."
An attorney and an IT consultant, S. and A. say that they originally thought that adoption was their only option. They had even started adoption proceedings before coming across a few articles on surrogacy options.
"We definitely knew this was a perfect match for us. Although every couple has its own preferences, we felt that having children that are genetically ours may ease things back home. Adoption for gay couples is not easy at all and many countries forbid them."
While they await the arrival of their twins, they are in contact with their surrogate on a weekly basis through Skype and email. They are eagerly waiting to find out the sex of their babies and then will start accumulating baby clothes and preparing their nursery. The couple plans to be in Chicago for the birth of their children and are very excited.
"We have been together for eight years and got married in Spain two years ago," said S. "Throughout this wonderful journey we shared a common dream from day one, to create a family of our own."
They chose Family Source Consultants after researching agencies and determining through conversations with other couples that the agency would provide the type of commitment to them that they would need throughout the entire process.
"We found it very useful to talk with former clients that already have children of their own.
"We are members of gay parenting networks in Spain and worldwide and we received extremely good reports about our agency and the fertility clinic we worked with. Therefore, we decided to choose the exact same professionals that other people with happy ending stories chose."
The couple also has ties to Chicago since one of the men lived in the city for six years and had already established a network of friends and support.
They have several tips to share from their own experience. "Make sure she and her family are comfortable delivering a kid for another couple. It is important to make sure she is healthy, has a stable life and that she has delivered other babies by surrogacy before."
They also say understanding the full financial picture is important, including all of the legal and medical costs associated with the pregnancy.
"Becoming parents has always been a goal in life and we thought that just for being gays this possibility was simply not possible. Now, with surrogacy, you have a chance to achieve your dream and you should not give up if that is what you want."